LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Explainer: marriage equality and Northern Ireland

marriage equality

This guest blog comes from John O’Doherty, director of the Belfast-based Rainbow Project. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that still has not introduced marriage equality – and in this post John talks about the movement’s ongoing campaign for recognition and protection.

According to a new Sky Data Poll published to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, 76% of the Northern Ireland public support equal marriage, with only 18% opposed.  An Ipsos MORI survey in 2015 recorded 68% support, with a further Ipsos MORI survey in 2016 recorded 70% of the public backing same sex marriage.  A rally organised by Love Equality – the campaign for equal civil marriage in Northern Ireland - following the successful referendum in the Republic of Ireland in 2015 saw 20,000 people marching in the city of Belfast calling for the introduction of equal marriage and a further rally held in 2017 received the same levels of support.

With this level of public support you would be forgiven for assuming that achieving equal marriage in Northern Ireland should be simple. Northern Ireland remains the only part of the United Kingdom not to legalise equal marriage. Marriages between same-sex couples solemnised in other parts of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales), or anywhere in the world, are only recognised as civil partnerships in Northern Ireland. As well as being part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland shares an island with the Republic of Ireland who, in 2015 became the first country to legalise marriage equality by popular vote.

LGBT rights have always been hard fought for in Northern Ireland. While protections and rights such as civil partnerships, protections when accessing goods, facilities and services as well as protections in employment and hate crime legislation have all been introduced, each of these measures were achieved through either direct rule from Westminster or through legal challenges in the courts. Despite homosexuality being decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967 – it was only in 1982 (following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights) that it was decriminalised in Northern Ireland. The main opposition for decriminalisation came from the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign led by then Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley.


The campaign for equal marriage in Northern Ireland was launched in July 2012.  The first vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly was held in October 2012 and along with the next three attempts failed to achieve a majority vote. In November 2015 the Assembly voted for the fifth time on the issue and achieved a majority vote in support with 53 votes in support and 52 opposed. Despite the majority vote of the Assembly, the motion failed to pass.

This week marks the twentieth anniversary since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – a political accommodation between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland which helped bring about an end to the armed conflict known as the Troubles in which over 3,000 people lost their lives.

The power sharing institutions were formed on the basis of nationalists and unionists sharing power and required the joint election of a First and Deputy First minister representing each of the majority communities. Within the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement there was a mechanism known as the Petition of Concern. The Petition of Concern was introduced to ensure that contentious issues can only be introduced with cross-community support. A Petition of Concern may be brought forward by 30 Assembly members (or MLAs)  and once tabled requires any measure to achieve a weighted majority (60%) of members voting in support including 40% of each the Unionist and Nationalist designations present and voting.

On each of the five votes held in the Northern Ireland Assembly on equal marriage a petition of concern was tabled by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). (They held 38/108 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly from 2011-2016 and accounted for 38/55 (69%) of Unionist Assembly Members. This, in effect, provided the DUP with a veto on any issue brought before the Northern Ireland Assembly.)

Following the 2015 majority vote in support of marriage equality, the DUP committed to using the Petition of Concern on any measure that would bring about equal marriage in Northern Ireland and would not support any Executive approach on the matter. Campaigners set out to work with those supportive MLAs to develop a Private Members Bill. Draft legislation was developed with the support of legal experts and a working group which included Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance, Green Party, People Before Profit and a number of Ulster Unionist Party Assembly members and some independent MLAs.

This work culminated in the development of a Bill which was supported by the working group who agreed to bring forward the measure together. Unfortunately, in January 2017 on the day the bill was due to go to public consultation the then Deputy First Minister from Sinn Fein Martin McGuinness resigned from his office and subsequently caused the fall of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Without a sitting Assembly and Executive it was not possible to continue with the PMB approach.

An election was held in March 2017 following the fall of the Assembly in which the number of seats was reduced from 108 to 90. In this election, 56/90 elected members supported the introduction of equal marriage. Unfortunately negotiations between the two largest parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP have failed to reach agreement. Since January 2017, there has been no Executive or Assembly in Northern Ireland.

In addition to the campaign’s focus on the Assembly, campaigners also supported two legal challenges brought before the Northern Ireland courts. The first was brought by the first two couples to enter into civil partnerships in Northern Ireland seeking legalisation of marriage between same-sex couples. The second was brought by an anonymous couple, supported by The Rainbow Project, who sought recognition of their marriage which was solemnised in England. The cases were heard in late 2015 and a ruling was issued in August 2017, almost two years later. Justice O’Hara dismissed both the cases stating that it was a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. These rulings are currently being appealed.


Following the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, campaigners moved their focus to Westminster. In March 2018, the Love Equality campaign supported a PMB brought forward in the House of Lords by Conservative peer Lord Hayward and a PMB brought forward by Labour MP Conor McGinn (originally from Northern Ireland) in the House of Commons. Both of these PMBs were introduced without any objection, however without the backing of the Government it is unlikely that these measures will be able to progress.

The Love Equality campaign along with Amnesty International and All Out gathered 40,000 signatures which were delivered to Downing Street calling on the Prime Minister to enact equal marriage legislation to coincide with the introduction of the bills. Following the success of both these PMBs UK Prime Minister Theresa May stated that her government would not be legislating on this issue as it was a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is worth noting that after the snap 2017 Westminster Election, Prime Minister Theresa May agreed a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP in order to form a government.

After six years of campaigning, the Love Equality campaign has achieved overwhelming public support for Equal Marriage as well as a majority of locally elected members of the Assembly. The introduction of same sex marriage in Northern Ireland is supported by all major parties across the United Kingdom and Ireland excluding the DUP. However without a locally elected Assembly, movement by the Prime Minister or the introduction of direct rule for Northern Ireland from Westminster – UK citizens living in or visiting Northern Ireland will continue to be treated as second class citizens and denied the rights afforded to other countries across this state.

Love Equality will continue to our campaign calling on the UK Government to recognise the huge public support for change. With no functioning devolution at Stormont, it is now time for the UK Government to legislate to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and Ireland and to end discrimination against the LGBT+ community.

Under the political surface, on human rights and equality issues such as equal marriage, Northern Ireland has changed. It is worth noting that this overwhelming support for marriage equality among the Northern Ireland public is far in excess of the figures which were seen in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland in advance of changes in the law there.

The Prime Minister has previously said that LGBT people in Northern Ireland should have equal marriage rights. This is now her chance to demonstrate action to match those words.

John O’Doherty is Director of The Rainbow Project, who are members of the Love Equality Consortium. You can follow them all on Twitter (@TRPNI  and @Love_EqualityNI).